Photographing A Triathlon

Some time towards the end of last year I was approached by a friend of a friend who helps to organise an annual triathlon in Nepal. Every year they look for a new photographer to try to capture a different feel for the event from previous years. Having had no experience in this area, I had to employ a lot of enthusiasm to get the job – my first paid photography job in another country!

I did a bit of online research, read a couple of blog posts about photographing triathlons and sports events and looked at other sports photographers work but was not overly prepared when I arrived in Nepal. Though I had thought at least one thing through beforehand – that I would carry only 3 lenses, which would be all my zoom lenses and no prime lenses. I have a Tokina 11 – 16,  a Nikon 18 – 55 and a Nikkor 55 – 200, so I thought this would be the best way to have all of my bases covered without the added complication of thinking about prime lenses. I also bought a Peak Design Capture Clip online for about $100 so I could carry all 3 lenses and change between them quickly and easily without having to keep going into my bag.

I first flew to Kathmandu and arrived in Pokhara 4 days before the event. The organisers hired a motorbike for me and we spent the first day riding around the first half of the cycling route – an off road circuit through the hills of Begnas, which can be best described as very rough terrain. There are a number of steep inclines and alot of areas are littered with rocks and boulders, in some parts for hundreds of metres at a time. Riding a motorbike was hard enough, cycling through this would be a serious challenge.

It was decided after the ride that I should be assigned a driver who was more experienced riding through this terrain, and this would also give me the chance to jump on and off the bike to get photos quickly, as we would effectively be racing the riders in order to get their photos, so it was essential that I should be able to get off and back on the bike as quickly as possible.

Samip – my rider and I spent the next 2 afternoons riding around the cycling route and finding potentially good places to shoot from. We would ride for a bit and when I would see a spot that might work, we would stop and I would spend a few minutes taking photos and working out angles. This helped in a number or ways, firstly it familiarised me with the track and with working with Samip, who also helped me by grabbing anything that I would chuck and him whilst I was racing to get my camera ready. It also gave me a reminder later on of the shots I wanted and helped me to prepare a mental shot list.

Time is a big factor when planning for shooting an event like this, as I wanted to get shots of all participants, which would mean getting to the front, and often the cyclists can out pace a motorbike, so we also had to plan our timing meticulously, knowing where in the course we wanted to be and by what time. This wasn’t entirely foolproof however, as we were basing our timings on predicted finishing times based on the results of previous events, but it actually worked out to be pretty accurate in the end.

The event starts in Begnas lake with a 1.5 Km out and back swim. I found this to be the hardest part to photograph. The start was a bit of a cock up because the organisers (who otherwise did an amazing job) didn’t organise a boat for me, though I asked about it many times and should have been a bit more suspiscious as everyone I asked about it gave me a different answer as to who would be rowing my boat. So I hopped in with one of the videographers and the last minute and couldn’t get the starting shot that I wanted – a side shot of everyone diving into the lake.

The event is located at the foot of the himlayas and we were lucky enough to have a great view of them on the race day. The previous 4 days had been nothing but hazy skies, so it was a huge relief to everyone, not least of all me, that the mountains decided to come out for the day. This meant that I wanted to make them a feature of some of the photos, and the best unhindered view of them is from the lake, so I was having a bit of a mental battle of how much view and how much mountain to include in the shots, as focussing on one seemed to compromise the other and it was hard to get a balance – I found that my wide angle lens was generally too wide to get enough of the action and that the zoom lens didn’t give much of a perspective of where we were.

Couple the above issue with the fact that you are trying to balance yourself in an old wooden boat which is ankle deep in water, whilst balancing your camera bag on a small wooden plank and trying to change lenses without rocking the boat and disturbing the videographer or capsizing the boat, whilst also trying to get a decent frame, made this quite a scary start to this job and I instantly thought I’d made a huge mistake by pretending that I could do this and I’d be happy if I got just one good shot.

Towards the end of the swimming I found my flow and was able to get a few shots that I knew were at least passable. I took a few sillhouette shots by increasing the shutter speed and was chimping a lot as I wasn’t confident that I had got any decent shots. After about 30 mins we decided to head back to the shore as we needed to get ahead of the first cyclists as the start of the race would be our only chance to get shots of the leaders.

Samip met me on the shore and we ran as quickly as possible to his motorbike. The cycling had already started about 10 minutes before but we took a short cut and got to a crossroads that the leader was due to hit about 2 minutes after we arrived. I jumped off Samip’s bike and with my 11 – 16 on got down low and was just in time to get shots of the leading 3 cyclists. We hopped back on the bike and stopped a couple of times at places which I thought would be good to shoot from, allowing a maximum of 3 bikes to pass before moving on, which we would do even if I didn’t get the shot I wanted, in order to make sure that we didn’t get too far behind the leaders as I was worried about being stuck with only the people at the back of the race, if we didn’t keep up with the leaders at least for the first half of the cycling.

I had written down a shot list beforehand which I had committed to memory. I consisted of:

1 silhouette of a bike against the mountains

2. 2 or 3 cyclists pan shot

3. cyclist from above with lake and mountains in background

4. silhoutte of runner

5. Long exposure of runner

I was hoping that the shots that we had planned in the recce over the previous few days would provide me with a good variety of photos, and the above 5 shots were ones that I knew I needed, and couldnt go home without, so they were constantly in my mind and I mentally ticked them off as I got each one, although I had to compromise slighty as they didn’t always turn out exactly as I imagined, but it did help a lot to have an idea in my mind of what shots I wanted to get.

The cycling route was by the admission of most participants, the hardest part of the course, and it was also the biggest challenge for us, as we had to try to work our way through and around the participants without getting in their way or affecting their race, which can be tough on such narrow and difficult terrain. I could not have driven half as well as Samip did and it was thanks to him that we were able to get alot of the shots that we did.

The running was much more laid back as we didn’t have to race to get ahead, we could take our time a bit more, and before we knew it we were on the home straight, where I stood unwittingly burning my scalp for about an hour, not realising how strong the sun was. I got a few of my favourite shots of the race there, and as I had more time I could experiment a bit more, and got possibly my favourite shot of the race which was a long exposure of runner Beth Burman.

I headed back not really sure how many useable shots I’d got but it turned out there there were a few decent ones, and I managed to get some published in Lava Magazine, Crank Magazine and in the forthcoming edition of Triathlon magazine Canada.



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